You probably came here for the simple answer. I can give that to you. It’s an obvious one. No. You don’t need a degree to become a writer. Anyone can choose to write. The difference is, will you be a great writer or a terrible one? Maybe just an average writer? Is that enough for you? Being average? If not, then you’re probably actually wondering what you need to become great. How do you become great at anything? You study for it.
History is littered with examples of accomplished individuals who did not get a degree. What you’re missing from that is the detail that they studied on their own. Very rarely does anyone fall into something without having the know how to sustain their time there. In those cases, even fewer didn’t take the time to learn more from those around them. You wouldn’t have heard of them if they slouched like that.
The easiest way to study to be a top author is to learn about those who came before you, and those who will be your peers. In the case of non-fiction, you will need to have the background appropriate for your subject. For instance, if you want to write on theoretical physics, having a degree (I’d recommend PhD level) is required. No one will take you seriously without that education and experience behind the work. That’s for good reason. You can’t make up science. It’s not fiction. There are standards to be met.
So what about fiction? Most of it is made up, right? Fiction is a much looser area in which to write. Don’t mistake, however, that there are standards to be met here, and not just grammar. What if you’re writing science fiction, historical fiction, military fiction, spy fiction, and even fantasy? Depending on your genre, you’ll find expectations here, too. You can try to defy them, but with an established (and dug in) readership for many genres, you could be digging your grave. Once you lose credibility as an author, it’s tough to come back and get reader respect.
Many independent authors might read the above and dismiss it. Like I said before, you can do things via a different path, if you wish. That doesn’t make you wrong. Still, you might be making life much harder for yourself. What you aren’t aware of could be exactly what is holding you back, or making it difficult to get to the next level. In my experience, the most efficient means to get the information you need is to take a class on the topic. Not only will the instructor be able to answer your questions, but they have already learned and practiced and have much to offer you. It’s all too easy to dismiss and instructor as someone who couldn’t make it, so they decided to teach instead, but usually they are advanced beyond those taking their course and still working to reach even higher. It’s a requirement, especially in colleges and universities, to do professional development and keep abreast of your subject. I know, because I had almost 20 years working in higher education with university professors. They know their shit, and to insist otherwise is ego talk. You hurt yourself rejecting their input in favor of going it alone.
Education is expensive. I hear you. I’m paying back a loan from my Master’s studies, and I had a fellowship! It seems there is never enough money to afford the things you need to excel. If you’re a member of a union, almost all have programs for continuing your education. Take advantage. If you’re not, check with your human resources department to see if the business you work for has a program. Again, take advantage! You’d be a fool not to. Even if your employer limits what you can study to business studies, you can learn a lot that will benefit your writing career. Marketing, for instance, is something you’re going to need to know a lot about. Advertising, writing, facilitation, management, and the like will all serve you. Business writing can make your fiction writing stronger, even though they differ. Maybe, what you write about has to do with business culture, so these classes would help inform that knowledge base.
If you can’t take advantage of a tuition program, look into grants. Don’t give up.
Tuition costs aside, you’re probably wondering what you should bother to study. That all depends on what degree you’re seeking. If you’re after an associates, you’ll focus on mechanics classes (grammar and writing basics courses). Use your electives to learn more about the genre you want to write in. This same formula extends to bachelor degrees. The only difference is that you get more time and more electives, including a minor. If you’re going to study writing and want to write science fiction, your minor should be in the sciences (those that pertain to your focus). That goes for any genre you pick. In my case, I majored in English (concentration on writing, with an emphasis on writing intensive courses) and minored in History (focus on Roman, Western European, British, and Early American). You should notice my book topics in that course of work.
If you’re ready to study at the graduate level, hold onto your butt, because this is an epic period. You don’t have the basic requirements like undergrad that gum up your credits that you’d like to put toward your major. You’ll be focusing very clearly on your topic. My recommendation for writers is to find either an MFA (Master of Fine Arts – culminating degree) program, or a MALS (Master of Arts in Liberal Studies) program. I enrolled in a MALS program, and will never regret it. I was able to study the intersections of several topics that pertained to my writing: Writing, Screenwriting, Film Studies, History, and Politics. The coursework made me a strong writer. It taught me the reasons for writing in the form expected in film. History and politics let me study my predecessors and the influences that framed their work. During my work, I had access to very talented professors, some of who graduated from ivy league institutions. It was the most effective skills building period of my career, and it took a very short period to accomplish (3 years – 2 courses per term, plus one summer cram course).
The respect for my work became immediate once I embarked on a graduate degree. Colleagues, friends, and strangers did not look to me with the doubt I had often experienced. The presence of a degree assured them that I had done the work to obtain the necessary skills, and they could have confidence in my books. It’s like walking into a restaurant and not only seeing a passing inspection but that the Chef went to an impressive culinary school. This is the reason the biographical flap exists in books. This short paragraph reassures readers they’re buying a quality product, even more than a well-known publisher can. Short of having that big time publisher, being able to list your degrees and experience alongside who you are behind the scenes is insurance.
Studying literature and topics that apply to your focus can help you avoid being a bore. You can be a very good writer grammatically and not have clue one about storytelling. If you’ve not learned enough about storytelling, you really do risk being boring. You can do all the research in the world, but your skills in tying it all together are what makes it click. Writing books is much more than slapping sentences down. This is beyond plot and style. It’s the voice. The more you write, the more you experience, the more distinctive your voice will become. You not only have something to say, but you’ve experienced other voices and sought your own in between. Having the guidance of instructors is a boost that can make this a lot easier to achieve. Feedback from your professors is coming from a professional perspective—one that avoids wasted stamps and agonizing canned letters.
So, do you need a degree to become a writer? No. But, if you have one, you’ll get where you want to be with less of a struggle to gain reader and peer trust. The struggle to resolve blockades in your path will be easier. You’ll know of what to be aware, so you can improve your work and successes. You won’t be embarrassed when you get your marked up manuscript back from the editor (the more you do to learn writing, the less red you’ll see). And even if your mechanics are pristine, a degree will help you understand the dynamics of story telling and be able to deliver on the promise you make in the blurb on the back of your book.
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